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Water in peril: quenching thirst in Africa


August 15, 2011

Access to clean water – life’s essential ingredient – has become ever more uncertain in many parts of the world. The combined effects of overcrowding, drought and pollution have brought water-related stress to crisis levels, particularly in many parts of Africa.

Daniel Nzengya, a graduate research assistant in the Center for Sustainable Health at Arizona State University’s Biodesign Institute and lecturer at Africa University, has been studying issues associated with water, urbanization and sustainability in the area around Kenya’s Lake Victoria.

In addition to conducting fieldwork for thesis research, Nzengya has worked to facilitate discussions with Kenyatta University – the region’s largest institute for teacher training. He hopes to engage the university in Biodesign’s Sustainable Science for Teachers Initiative, a program developed by Lee Hartwell, geneticist, Nobel laureate and chief scientist of the Center for Sustainable Health.

Nzengya points out that, “Elementary school teachers have an important role to play in global sustainability efforts, because they have the power to shape the values and perspectives of the young children they teach. Biodesign’s collaboration with Kenyatta University will help Kenyan teachers contribute to the sustainable development of their country.”

In the course of Nzengya’s travels around the region during May and June of this year, he spoke with 306 households in Bondo Town, Lake Victoria – 20 percent of the total households located there. The interviews addressed prevailing attitudes concerning safe water initiatives, potential benefits to the community from new water projects and issues of sustainability.

Nzengya also interviewed government officials regarding the impact of various reforms in the water supply sector and institutions providing water service. The draft results of these discussions will be released in Oct. 2011. Nzengya’s eyewitness account and data collection validated his concerns – the scope of the problem in Africa is daunting.

Water sources passing through towns and cities in the region of Nairobi, Kenya are severely stressed. In many areas, drought and over-use of water resources have left dry streambeds, forcing inhabitants to dig deep into the sandy earth in order to find silt-laden water for household use.

Lake Victoria, a vast body of water roughly the size of Ireland, is shared by Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda.  It is the largest tropical lake and the second largest freshwater lake in the world. A source of drinking water for communities as well as livestock, the lake has experienced steadily declining water quality, leading to extensive water-borne ailments among many who rely on it. Indeed, as Nzengya notes, 80 percent of hospital cases in the region are the result of water-related illness.

Lake Victoria’s once-pristine waters have become foul-smelling, murky with contaminants and choked with algae. The lake’s turn of fate is due to a combination of increased demand from an expanding population, the dumping of untreated effluent and industrial waste into the water, the clearing of natural vegetation, and the decline in native fish species. There is deep concern among ecologists that the problems plaguing Victoria could soon render the lake inhospitable to life, with catastrophic repercussions for communities dependent on it. The Lake Victoria basin remains one of the most densely populated rural areas in the world.

On June 21, Nzengya participated in detailed discussions at Kenyatta University, concerning the Sustainability Science for Teachers Initiative, spearheaded by the Biodesign Institute, under the leadership of Hartwell. Over 50 members of the Kenyatta faculty, staff, professors, and lecturers attended the meetings, expressing enthusiasm for collaborative efforts between their school and Arizona State University in teacher training that strongly incorporates sustainability and teacher education.

The job of transforming conditions in the region in order to achieve sustainability of water use for Lake Victoria’s many dependents will require the combined efforts of rural inhabitants, governments, aid agencies, and the scientific community. Aggressive efforts are now underway to undo some of the severe environmental damage that has resulted from decades of mismanagement, but Nzengya stresses that much more needs to be done if Lake Victoria and other regional waterways are to be restored to a healthy, sustainable condition.

About the Biodesign Institute at Arizona State University

The Biodesign Institute addresses today’s critical global challenges in healthcare, sustainability and security by developing solutions inspired from natural systems and translating those solutions into commercially viable products and clinical practices. www.biodesign.asu.edu

About the Center for Sustainable Health

The Center for Sustainable Health (CSH) at Arizona State University’s Biodesign Institute harnesses technology, economics and behavior to improve health outcomes and reduce the financial and human cost of disease. To sustain human health, we believe that health systems must shift their current focus from expensive and ineffective late-stage disease response toward highly cost-effective or cost-saving prevention and early intervention strategies. To support this effort, we seek the active collaborative engagement of key stakeholders: governments, public and private health insurers, regulatory bodies, basic research institutes, industry, and innovative care delivery systems around the world.  www.sustainablehealth.org